Sunday, January 30, 2005

The attractive qualities of pastel are its directness and the textural marks which are possible with the medium. With a portrait currently on my easel I began to consider strategies which might be implemented to bring the painting to a conclusion. It helps when deciding on a particular approach to look at examples. One valuable source of reference is ‘Pastel Painting and Drawing 1898-2000’ published by The Pastel Society to celebrate the Society’s Centenary Exhibition.

The book illustrates some fine examples of portraits done by PS members which display the broad range of techniques which can be used with pastel. Ken Paine is an artist who tackles his portrait heads in a vigorous direct manner. The faces seem to emerge from a flurry of textural marks. His subjects are usually old, hirsute, and with ‘character.’ In contrast Victor Ambrus portraits are essentially light firm drawings with hints of colour in the face and parts of the clothing. The linear approach he adopts is ideal for recording detail.

Between these two extremes are portraits which have highly worked parts – usually the face – and more more loosely treated areas which exploit the dry textural nature of the chalk. I decided that this would be the best strategy for a portrait of a child where the skin is smooth with subtle tonal contrast best achieved by blending the coloured marks made by the pastels. Background and clothing could be given looser treatment.

Friday, January 28, 2005

I’ve temporarily abandoned studies of birds to return to a portrait that is in danger of going off the boil. I began it last summer prompted by the sight of my granddaughter dressed in my wife’s nightdress and her straw sunhat. Most children love dressing up and this one is no exception but recording them in their fancy dress is not easy except with a camera. Reliance on photographic references becomes essential since the first tentative drawing was made over six months ago.

The portrait has progressed to the point where major corrections to the pose have been made, one of these – to the outline of the hat – still shows. She is turned away from the light and the face for the most part is lit by reflected light. This creates subtle contrasts of tone around the eyes and nose which I hope to record rather - dare I say – in the way that Rembrandt did!

I’ve gone for a full painterly treatment in pastel on the reverse side of a grey Canson paper – preferring this to the ‘correct’ side which has an insistent regular grain that breaks into textural marks. The work has progressed to the point where I’m beginning to consider an intermediate fix. I’m always reluctant to use fixative preferring to scrape down to the ground when I can. I don’t think I will be able to do this on Canson because the rubbed blends and corrections have filled the grain of the paper. Little can be done that is not likely to damage the paper surface.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

This digital image was made from a photograph of a 2005 calendar published by Hawksworth Graphic and Print Ltd. The calendar was one of the most appreciated gifts I received at Christmas - it is now hanging on my studio wall and is a delight and inspiration. The illustrations are by Leonard Squirrel RWS, RE. who has long been one of my favourite watercolourists. He taught etching and engraving at the Ipswich School of Art and exhibited at the Royal Academy for around 50 years. He was born in 1893 yet he was not elected a full member of the RWS until 1941 – a surprising fact which shows how persistent and determined you have to be to progress in the art world.

He belonged to a generation which produced fine landscape painters like Jack Merriott, Stanley Buckle, and Stanley Badmin. They never get a mention in the scholarly art history books and rarely feature in exhibitions in public galleries - yet they were all very prolific artists making a living from commissions and sales of their work.One of the best ways to become familiar with their work is to look at Greg Norman’s book ‘Landscape Under the Luggage Rack.’

The illustration shows a watercolour ‘The Street, Kersey, Suffolk’ painted in 1960. It is a fine example of a class of English watercolour which use controlled washes over a fine drawing. The detail reveals the method but it is hard to decide if the tiles are drawn with a pen or a fine brush superimposed on the wash or beneath it. The choice of instrument and order of application is a matter of the artist’s preference. Jack Merriott advocated the use of a brush drawing in Indian ink with superimposed washes of colour.

Interest in the work of these artists declined as amateur artists engaged with the looser style of Seago and Wesson. Although both artists developed a loose understated method of working this was underpinned by close observation. Wesson in particular could draw well and it is fatal to try and imitate their style if you can’t. So many of the Wesson ‘look alikes’ in amateur exhibitions suffer from a badly drawn beginning.

I meet artists who are excited by the concept of developing new ways of using watercolour - extending its boundaries. Then I often recall a comment by Milan Kundera which I once read. He questioned whether 'the never before expressed is always ahead of us – may it not be found from something which has gone before and has been overlooked?' Artists like Leonard Squirrel tend to be overlooked but there is much in their work which can be rediscovered.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

A poster announcing an exhibition called ‘Cuoto on Netsuke’ caught my eye at the Museum and Art Gallery in Hereford so I made a brief visit. Netsuke are small Japanese beads used to secure objects to a belt. They are highly decorative objects and very beautiful Cuoto turned out to be an artist who was showing large engravings influenced by traditional Japanese themes. Of more interest were the woodcuts of birds and flowers. Although they were described by the exhibition catalogue as realistic, to modern eyes accustomed to photographic images that seemed inappropriate. There charm springs from the limitations imposed on the artist by the medium he is using. Details of colour and texture have to be suggested rather than accurately recorded. For artistic rather than scientific purposes this is not a handicap and they can be enjoyed for their directness and honesty of purpose. These are qualities that distinguish the best hand made artifacts and which give them value.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

I’ve just enrolled for a Wildlife Drawing and Painting Course at Ludlow Museum. The museum has a good collection of bird specimens that are interesting to draw. Our tutor Angela Gladwell MArt (RCA) is pushing us in the direction of careful observation and accurate recording. Good basic principles once instilled into art students in the life class. Drawing museum specimens is a good discipline. It’s more like drawing from the antique casts that were once used to prepare students for the life class than drawing a living breathing model.

That said it is a worth while form of study and a lot easier than drawing birds in the wild. I’ve tried drawing garden birds and visitors to our bird table and also puffins at their nesting burrows on Skomer. This is essential study if you want to capture a sense of how birds move, perch, or feed but there is no substitute for having a mounted specimen to study anatomy and plumage. I’ve only ever managed to record such details in a very superficial way in the brief time you get to observe from life.

Having tried sketching birds from life I never cease to be amazed by Charles Tunnicliffe’s sketchbooks. The published sketchbooks are a good source of reference and I’ve learned a lot about drawing techniques from making copies from them. Another artist I greatly admire is Victor Ambrus who makes drawings to reconstruct the buildings excavated by Channel 4’s Time Team.

Victor is also a prolific book illustrator and he has published ‘Drawing Animals’ a book which describes his method of sketchng animals from life. All of his drawings were done at various locations using carbon pencils. I’ve found it instructive to make copies from these by following his methods.

These quick studies copy the style of each of these two fine artists – a brush drawing based on an illustration from Tunnicliffe’s ‘Peregrine Sketchbook’ and a Macaw from ‘Drawing Animals’ by Victor Ambrus.

Angela Gladwell’s web site is also worth a visit at

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Compared to the practical humanitarian work that needs to be done to help the broken communities recover from the Tsunami disaster painting suddenly seemed to be a useless and irrelevant activity. The enthusiasm for painting left me completely as the daily news bulletins carried more and more horrific images. Then I saw aid workers helping children to face up to their horrific experiences by drawing. So there is a place for art even in the midst of complete chaos to help people overcome the trauma of disaster. Where words cannot be found to record the emotional nightmare perhaps images can.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

New Year’s Day seems to be a good time to post a Blog. The last day of 2004 saw the arrival of the Pastel Society’s Newsletter – always an interesting though rather brief read. Roger Dellar, the Editor made reference to ‘Degas, Art in the Making’ - an exhibition currently on show at the National Gallery. Degas late pastels are a source of inspiration for anyone using the medium. He frequently used tracing paper as a support. He made use of it to create mirror images of the poses of his drawings of dancers. In this way he could create varied figure compositions from just a few simple poses. He seems to have resorted to this practice as his eyesight began to fail and he was no longer able to go to the ballet.

Degas also used canvas as a support for pastels – a practice which is hardly ever used today. Sickert, who studied with Degas, criticises this practice in his book ‘Open House.’ because of the risk of damage through vibration. He has a point if a traditional stretched canvas is used but the risk is greatly reduced if the canvas is glued to board.

There are valid creative reasons for exploring the properties of different grounds for pastels. Roger Dellar states the case nicely in his Editorial. ‘I find myself being more and more concerned with the paint surfaces, textures, mark making, and also the composition.’ Painting begins with the preparation of a ground suited to the subject being portrayed. The use of prepared pumice grounds and materials such as canvas offer choices which extend the range of the medium. Degas seems to have been aware of this and in his late pastels he produced some of his most exciting paintings.